It’s been thrilling to see the recent high acclaim and popularity for Han Kang’s powerful distinctive writing. She won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 for “The Vegetarian” and her novel “Human Acts” is one of the most devastating portrayals of the victims and survivors of mass warfare that I’ve read. Even though she’s been publishing fiction in her native South Korea since 1995, Kang’s writing has only recently been made widely available to a Western audience through Deborah Smith’s excellent translations. It feels exciting that there is such a large back catalogue which might still yet make it into English translation. “The White Book” is another fascinating new book by Han Kang that is uniquely different from those other two English translations, but encompasses some similar themes and familiar inflections of feeling. It could be classified somewhere between a novel, poetry and a memoir. It’s more like an artistic exercise to self consciously meditate on a colour by making a list of white things and then exploring the deeply personal memories and connections surrounding these objects. The result is an intensely emotional series of accounts that form an outline of losses which are invisible, but still palpably felt in the author’s life – especially that of Kang’s sister who was born prematurely and died shortly after her birth.
Some photographs are interspersed between Kang’s short explorations of different white things and these add a poignancy to the concentration being dedicated to particular objects. Although each separate account of a white thing can often stand alone like a complete thought or memory, the book nonetheless builds a momentum as imagery starts to repeat and their meaning acquires a special resonance. For example, Kang is told her sister’s face was like a moon shaped rice cake. She recalls making dough for rice cakes and shaping them. Later she looks at the moon itself and recalls these cakes and imagines what her newborn sister’s face looked like. These images start to meld together like when purely white objects are placed together and seem to disappear into each other. Suddenly it feels like this absence is all around and has the power to make itself felt in any empty white space that appears. Kang also lists other absences like a man’s father who was lost on a hiking trip in the Himalayas or, more broadly, the casualties of war from the country she left and “the dead that had been insufficiently mourned.” In particular, this account of ‘Spirit’ feels very reminiscent of the anger and determination to memorialize victims which fills Kang’s novel “Human Acts.”
There’s also a familiar feeling of guilt and unworthiness which permeates much of the text. Objects can often stand for something significant in Kang’s life such as a validation for simply existing. So a “crisp cotton bedsheet” says to her “Your sleep is clean, and the fact of your living is nothing to be ashamed of.” The questions that beg to be asked are: why might her sleep feel dirty and why would she be ashamed to be alive. An insolvable conflict arises when Kang considers how if her sister hadn’t died as a newborn her mother wouldn’t have continued having children and Kang would never have been born. This instils a peculiar kind of guilt within the author who simultaneously mourns her sister, but is nonetheless grateful that her early death allowed Kang the chance to exist. Despite knowing logically that there can be no fault assigned to these events which led to her sister’s death and her survival, a burning sense of culpability still plagues Kang’s consciousness.
So it comes as a blissful relief at some points when certain white things don’t carry any such burdensome associations. There’s a very sweet and simple memory which accompanies sugar cubes and from this Kang declares “There are certain memories which remain inviolate to the ravages of time. And to those of suffering. It is not true that everything is coloured by time and suffering. It is not true that they bring everything to ruin.” This is a very important assertion within the collection because it’s a key to her understanding of how we project our emotions, sensibility and personal history into things. White is essentially a blank canvass. We can imaginatively fill it with anything we want and take anything from it that we want because there’s nothing really there. In the same way, our emotions don’t really exist except in the transitory moment. We can choose to let them control us or we can allow them to dissipate into that blank white space. This is an extraordinarily artful and beautifully meditative book.